A Cappella Bellas
South Brunswick High School’s Brunswick Bellas are rising to the challenge of barbershop-style singing.
“Everybody can sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” says Leonor “Lee” Thomas, choral director at South Brunswick High School. “But not everybody can sing it in barbershop style.”
A love of singing and aim to challenge chorus students and feature them in concerts led Thomas in 2019 to form the Brunswick Bellas, a group of eight teens from the school who sing a cappella barbershop style. That is, voices only — no musical instruments, no accompaniment. They are the women’s equivalent to Brunswick County’s Coastal Harmonizers chorus, the all-male barbershop group. Women’s voices are soprano 1, a barbershop tenor; soprano 2, a barbershop lead; alto 1, a barbershop baritone; and alto 2, a barbershop bass.
“Barbershop singing is not easy,” Thomas says. “It’s challenging to sing your part when three other voices are singing in a difference part.”
Brunswick Bellas wear their signature cobalt blue princess-style, knee-length dresses when they perform at various functions.
“The Coastal Harmonizers really motivated the girls when they asked them to perform at one of their concerts,” Thomas says.
The Harmonizers have supported the Bellas from their start, she adds.
The Bellas most recent appearance was in April 2021 at the Charters of Freedom dedication at the Brunswick County Government Complex. COVID-19 curtailed other performances and then with graduation, the group decreased by three, so Thomas spread flyers at the school announcing auditions for anyone interested in joining the group.
A Bella doesn’t have to know how to read music, but “You have to depend a lot on your ear if you can’t,” Thomas says. Another key factor is being expressive and moving comfortably with the music. “My biggest struggle is finding girls who can sing bass, the lowest part,” Thomas says.
The private auditions at the school required a candidate sing a song of her choosing for one minute in the voice she believes is best for her range.
To show she can adapt to other voices, the teen sings “Happy Birthday” and “I Love to Sing ’Em,” two barbershop quartet favorites, while the other voices are on tape in the background.
Thomas and three of the current Bellas evaluated the candidates on intonation, tone and support, which includes volume to determine how their voice carries, and presentation. In all, 14 students auditioned, most of whom chose to sing the lead soprano part.
“Auditioning is hard, but listening to other people’s auditions is so much harder because each of the voices is unique and you have to pinpoint the [tone],” says Trinity Cottle, an original Bella who sings soprano 2, the lead part. “[Bella’s] is very challenging, but it’s really fun.” Cottle plans to be a chorus teacher.
“I respect all of them for coming in here,” says Bella Stevie Varley, who sings soprano 1, tenor, but says she can sing soprano 2 and alto 1, baritone, as well. “All [candidates] have potential for Bellas,” she adds and says she enjoys singing the highest part because “it’s more fun.” Varley wants a career in live theatre.
Heather Scalzo joined Bellas as a junior and sings alto 2, the bass part. “I like Bellas because we’re all there [to support] each other,” she says. “It’s like a little family.” A musical career is probably not in her future. She plans on pursuing criminal justice or cybersecurity at UNCW or Appalachian State.
Thomas, who grew up in Vineland, New Jersey, preferred piano but had the opportunity to sing soprano in a chorus in high school.
“I enjoyed it so much,” she says. “There is a distinct beauty about singing in a choir, especially a cappella music, and that was such a great experience that inspired me to continue.”
Yet Thomas majored in piano at Glassboro State College, now named Rowan University, but her career led her to teaching music, primarily chorus. She and her husband decided to move south a few years ago to escape the cold weather of the north.
The Bellas auditions proved so successful that Thomas decided to increase the number of singers to 11. They are junior Karly Satterwhite and sophomore Stevie Varley, tenors and both returning Bellas. Lead singers are returning Bella Trinity Cottle, a senior, while freshman Lucy Hedblom and senior Isabella Stanton are both new members. Returning Bella senior Audrey McLaughlin and new members sophomore Maggie Stone and freshman Felicity Wiley will sing baritone. Returning Bella senior Heather Scalzo and new members Julia Nicholas and Carrie Brown, both sophomores, will sing bass.
The Brunswick Bellas look forward to appearing throughout the year at senior centers, school concerts and special occasions including the Holiday Special December 14 at Odsell Williamson Auditorium.
“Whenever we are asked to perform, if we can work it out, we’ll go and perform,” Thomas says.
Thomas is hoping to arrange to have the group perform at Disney World or Universal Studios in Florida.
“It helps to motivate them,” she says.
Want to book an appearance?
Leonor (pronounced Lee՚ah nor) Thomas